The Light Between Oceans (2016)

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You only have to forgive once. Shellshocked WW1 vet Tom (Michael Fassbender) gets a job as lighthouse keeper off the coast of Australia. On the mainland, he encounters the lively Isabel (Alicia Vikander) who proposes to him. She’s desperate to have a baby but suffers two brutal miscarriages which affect her state of mind. Her prayers for motherhood are finally answered when an infant girl washes up on shore in a rowboat with a dead man inside. Tom thinks they should notify the authorities but ultimately gives in to Isabel’s wish to keep the girl. Fate strikes when Tom sees Gwen (Rachel Weisz) on the mainland at her husband and baby’s grave when they bring the little girl Lucy to be baptised. Three years later they meet again and Tom makes a decision that will upend the family they have made with another woman’s child and Isabel takes revenge …Adapted by Derek Cianfrance from the novel by M.L. Stedman, this looks very pretty indeed. It is however a dangerously nutty maternal melodrama that proves what we have always known – women with children suffer from a very specific derangement and women who lose them are crazed, as the parallel actions of the very different mothers prove – because when Gwen decides Tom isn’t guilty of her husband’s murder she will hand back Lucy (or Grace, as she was originally christened) to the woman whom Lucy truly loves – as long as Tom goes to the gallows for a non-existent crime. Isabel was intent on punishing him for losing the child she persuaded him to steal. Has she gone too far? Do you think?! So we are pulled to the brink of madness and then – and then … Like a toddler pulling on your little finger, you’ll be tugged into this bizarre story that is performed with alarming conviction by all concerned. Thank goodness Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown are at hand to push things back, just a tad. Everyone looks like they’re straight from the pages of a Boden catalogue. Know that you have always been beloved

Little Boy Lost (1953)

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Before you love the living you’ve got to bury the dead.  During World War II an American war correspondent Bill Wainwright (Bing Crosby) is stationed in Paris. He meets and falls in love with a French singer, Lisa Garret (Nicole Maurey). They marry and have a son, Johnny. When Bill is assigned to cover Dunkirk he can’t return to Paris and discovers Lisa is still there, singing nightly on Radio France. His anti-Nazi reporting means he can’t enter Occupied France. Then the radio station is shut down and he can’t locate her or his son.  He learns the Nazis have murdered her for her Resistance work. After the war and with the assistance of his friend Pierre Verdier (Claude Dauphin) he finds out that his small son went missing during a bombing raid. He is possibly living in an orphanage run by nuns, led by the Mother Superior (Gabrielle Dorziat).  He finds a sad and confused boy, Jean (Christian Fourcade), who does bear a superficial resemblance to Lisa, and Wainwright believes he might be his son. The Mother Superior insists that the boy is his, but Wainwright is sceptical and sets out to test him, eventually convinced that the boy has been coached in order to ease an adoption …Only the trustworthy have friends in the Resistance. And the trustworthy are the Resistance. Producer/director George Seaton could be termed as an auteur and his post-war work, from Miracle on 34th Street to The Big Lift blends realism and social comment with a little sentiment and broad political statements, an admixture that perfectly fits the feeling of the time. This exercise in post-war drama with a musical element doesn’t quite work – it’s a somewhat artificial interpretation of Marghanita Lanski’s book and she was rather shocked that having sold the rights to British actor John Mills it wound up being somewhat bowdlerized as a Paramount production starring Bing Crosby with a lot of singing interludes. Crosby is good, but not great, at playing the man reluctant to confront the reality of his wife’s demise and quick to decide that of all the orphans in the convent it’s the cute blond one that must be his, not the scrawny dark fellow with the chicken legs. There are truths here for all parents, mostly issued in the mother superior’s exchanges with this conflicted man, ready to report on everyone but himself. A mixed bag but not without interest particularly for anyone interested in seeing the terrible state of Paris after the war, a rather different impression than you might have from An American in Paris or its confreres. Paternity cannot be decided by a sudden rapid pulse or a lump in the throat

 

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John Carpenter’s The Ward (2010)

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Nobody ever gets out. In North Bend Psychiatric Hospital in rural Oregon, 1966 a patient called Tammy dies in strange and violent circumstances. Kristen (Amber Heard) is committed there after she burns down a house. She is suffering from amnaesia.  It seems an angry spirit of a former patient is haunting the girls (Mamie Gummer, Laura-Leigh, Lyndsy Fonseca, Danielle Panabaker) who are being treated on her ward and they are disappearing one by one. Dr Gerald Springer (Jared Harris) pays Kristen no heed and in fact subjects her to terrible medical treatment when she warns of the girl called Alice Hudson who was a former inmate and whose ghost stalks the corridors. What did the others do to her to make her swear revenge? And why is she included? Kristen makes desperate escape attempts after the staff ignore her fear of losing her life to the spirit… You stay locked up long enough and you start to believe that you’re nuts. You’ll recognise some visual references to other films here – and what else would you expect from the maestro John Carpenter? This is a small-scale exercise in tropes from the medical horror sub-genre with an attractive cast playing it for real, even if there’s something of a tribute to Nurse Ratched by Susanna Burney in this Sixties-set Snake Pit. It may turn on the most rudimentary issues and beliefs of psychiatry and ideas about how a personality might take steps to insulate against past traumas but it’s probably true to the era. In the midst of the Mean Girls scenario are some observations about how people deal with being institutionalised in physically violent and threatening environments. However it’s fast and fun and efficiently dramatised by the great Carpenter. Written by Michael Rasmussen and Shawn Rasmussen. Sleep tight, sugar!

Poltergeist (1982)

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Look, Dr. Lesh. We don’t care about the disturbances, the pounding and the flashing, the screaming, the music. We just want you to find our little girl. Steve Freeling (Craig T. Nelson) and his wife Diane (JoBeth Williams) live a quiet life in an Orange County, California planned community called Cuesta Verde, where Steven is a successful real estate developer and Diane looks after their children Dana (Dominique Dunne), Robbie (Oliver Robins) and little Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke). Carol Anne awakens one night and begins conversing with the family’s television set, which is displaying static following a sign-off. The following night, while the Freelings sleep, Carol Anne fixates on the television set as it transmits static again. Suddenly, a ghostly white hand emerges from the television, followed by a violent earthquake. As the shaking subsides, Carol Anne announces They’re here. Soon she disappears and the family fall apart as it becomes clear the house is being haunted.  An exhausted Steven appeals to parapsychologists (Beatrice Straight, Richard Lawson and Martin Casella) at UC Irvine to find out where his daughter is while she calls out from inside the family’s TV. They arrive to a house turned into a maelstrom of chaos. When their intervention doesn’t work it’s time to bring in Tangina the exorcist (Zelda Rubinstein) … Carol Anne is not like those she’s with. She is a living presence in their spiritual earthbound plane. They are attracted to the one thing about her that is different from themselves – her life-force.  Brilliant, hilarious and terrifying all at once, this is one of the outstanding memories of my childhood and on an autumnal morning approaching Halloween it doesn’t lose its bewitching power. The story of a family unwittingly haunted by the ghosts of people whose remains were left in their resting place while houses were built above them with their headstones moved operates as a caustic commentary on how the west was really won; while the dangers of television and other addictive communication devices hardly need laying bare. There’s great humour here amid the restrained playing out of the horror theme and it really makes it work:  when the parapsychologists first arrive in the house and Steven refuses to accompany them to Carol Anne’s bedroom their faces are a classic picture of stunned astonishment as the objects fly at them, giggling. The leads are great as the parents – Nelson is marvellous as the determined dad while Williams is a joy as the deadpan, driven mom. And you will never forget Zelda Rubinstein! The little demon fighter that could. It’s an incredible portrait of life in the ‘burbs, beautifully shot by Matthew F. Leonetti with an atmospheric score by Jerry Goldsmith. Produced by Steven Spielberg and co-written by him with Michael Grais and Mark Victor, this was directed by Tobe Hooper.

 

They Were Sisters (1945)

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She’s the kind that likes a man that wipes the floor with her. In 1919 three middle-class sisters meet the men they marry and the marriages develop into very different types of relationships. Twenty years later Lucy Moore (Phyllis Calvert) is happily married to her loving husband, the gentle William (Peter Murray-Hill) who has compassion and bases their marriage on understanding. She showers love and affection on her nieces and nephew, since she is unable to bear children of her own. Vera Sargeant (Anne Crawford), is also married to a very loving but fatally dull husband, Brian (Barry Livesey).  She never loved him and indulges her unhappiness with countless affairs and pays little heed to their young daughter. In 1939 both women become worried about their other sister, Charlotte Lee (Dulcie Gray), who cowers in fear of her manipulative and emotionally abusive husband, the sneering scowling Geoffrey (James Mason).  He is a monster and sadist who has picked at Charlotte, belittling her and turning her into a submissive drudge, bullying her to the point of alcoholism. He adores his older daughter Margaret (Pamela Mason) who works for him in his home office where he sells insurance but merely tolerates their younger son and daughter, at best. When Lucy attempts to get help for her, but fails because Geoffrey becomes aware of the failed appointment with a doctor when Vera puts her lover first instead of helping divert him from home, Gray commits the ultimate act of self-harm … Everything I’m used to has given me up. Quite an extraordinary entry in the Gainsborough ‘genre’ – stories of cruelty, the battle of the sexes and violently fantastical romances this is instead a contemporary story of domestic abuse and one lacking the allure of a Regency narrative with a seductive saturnine brute. Mason is just a commonplace bully keen to reduce his wife to nothing – which is what she becomes and her children and sisters are ultimately helpless to break the relationship with Geoffrey. Adapted by Katharine Strueby from Dorothy Whipple’s novel, the screenplay is by Roland Pertwee, who plays the coroner’s court judge. The ties that bind family are explored and the psychology of the bully brilliantly exposed in a drama that does not flinch from showing precisely how women are destroyed by men and lose their sense of self in incompatible unions:  this is a cautionary tale like few produced in British cinema. Weirdly, Charlotte and Geoffrey’s elder daughter is played by Mason’s wife Pamela (Kellino), the daughter of the film’s producer, Maurice Ostrer:  their physical likeness is uncanny. Mason was none too happy about being boxed in these kinds of roles and when he’s reduced to even being cruel to the young son about the dog he’s bought to bribe him and his sister you understand his point: this is a women’s picture, told for the benefit of those caught in terrible relationships. When Vera finally elects to leave her loveless domain and move abroad with the one man she has ever loved, it is at the expense of losing her daughter, who doesn’t even miss her. That the kind and childless Lucy winds up looking after both sister’s children is a dramatic irony that clearly struck people in the aftermath of World War 2.  Gray is wonderful as the woman who simply cannot take it any more while Calvert and Murray-Hill make for an utterly believable couple. This magnificently soapy modern Gothic story of gaslighting was number 4 at the box office on its release. Directed by Arthur Crabtree and produced by Michael Balcon. There are a million families like us

 

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin (2017)

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You’re the man. You lead. It’s WW2 and famous writer Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson) and his wife Daphne (Margot Robbie) get a distressing telegram. We flash back to the interwar years when a shellshocked Milne, an acclaimed playwright, leaves London for the countryside after experiencing one too many reminders of WW1. Milne’s ever-changing moods affect those around him.  Only his friend Ernest H. Shepherd (Stephen Campbell Moore) empathises as a fellow veteran. Daphne is a somewhat dim and brittle wife, unhappy and traumatised on her own account after a violent childbirth. Their nanny Olive or Nou (Kelly Macdonald) is the chief caregiver to their son, Christopher Robin but known as Billy Moon (Will Tilston). Daphne tires of A.A. and his failure to write anything and leaves for the city, ostensibly to buy wallpaper. But the wardrobes have been emptied. When Olive leaves to look after her dying mother, the males of the family are left to their own devices and start to spin fanciful yarns about Billy’s collection of stuffed animals.  Milne invites Ernest to visit and they start to put together a book with illustrations around Billy Moon’s relationship with his toys and their outings to the Hundred Acre Wood.  Tigger is better than Tiger. It’s more Tigger-ish. These stories form the basis for Winnie-the-Pooh  and The House at Pooh Corner, published respectively in 1926 and 1928. Milne and his family soon become swept up in the instant success of the books, while the enchanting tales bring hope and comfort but his relationship with his young son suffers as the boy is wheeled out in public to play the character of Christopher Robin and even their personal phonecalls are broadcast … If I’m in a book people might think I’m not real. Written by Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan, Simon Curtis’ film skirts the edges of whimsy and tragedy and finds it hard to balance the demands of both – how do you make a man experiencing PTSD a sympathetic character? He wants the British public to know the reality of combat and the utter waste of the Great War.  I’ve had enough of making people laugh. I need to make them see. Giving the toys a voice isn’t even his idea, it’s his wife’s.  She sends a poem he writes to her into Vanity Fair where it becomes famous, her eye firmly affixed to publicity. The child is chirpy and aggressive. These are real people, the film is telling us, and it’s not all wine and roses creating beloved children’s stories. They make each other interesting and tolerable through the written word in a narrative that expresses the limits of people’s endurance. When Milne tells Daphne he’s going to do a book about the pointlessness of war she is riled and shrieks that he might as well try writing about getting rid of Wednesdays – he might not like them but they always come around. Making this man see what he can do and the imaginative links he forges between his son’s playthings and his own desire for escaping the reality of his past provides the main texture of the work.  It’s very handsomely handled but never comfortable, no matter how often the sun might peep through the Hundred Acre Wood. Gleeson is an actor of narrow range and his performance is paradoxically limited by the writing but it’s an admirable insight into the writer’s life and the perilous attractions of fame. Stop. Look.

 

Black Swan (2010)

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The only person standing in your way is you.  Featured dancer Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young NYC ballerina whose passion for the dance rules every facet of her life which is rigidly controlled at home by her disappointed domineering single mother Erica (Barbara Hershey) who says she gave up everything to have Nina (but she never made it out of the corps). When the company’s artistic director Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) decides to replace prima ballerina Beth MacIntyre (Winona Ryder) for their opening production of Swan Lake, Nina is his first choice, perfect for the role of the White Swan. She has competition in newcomer Lily (Mila Kunis) however:  she personifies the Black Swan – her look, her clothing, her behaviour are literally delicate Nina’s polar opposite. As rivalry between the two dancers transforms into a twisted friendship and then into a fiercer rivalry as Lily is cast as Nina’s alternate, Nina’s dark side gradually emerges … Darren Aronofsky’s ballet film states its themes in the first frames:  a battle to the death onstage and then a hallucinatory trip tunnelling into the dark underground of New York City’s underbelly on the subway – a kind of diabolism seems writ large from the off. This psychological horror’s most recent comparator is probably Jacob’s Ladder and that’s three decades old.  But it’s really a film about femininity. The sheer repulsive physicality of it is offputting and not for the squeamish:  the bulimic purging; the bloodied squashed misshapen feet; ripping off of cuticles; continuous self-harming – Nina’s long nails tear at her shoulder and then she sees feathers sprouting in the holes; licking a spot of cake frosting constitutes a meal;  and when Beth takes the knife Nina has returned and stabs herself in the face. The sheer proliferation of close ups of skin is revolting. It’s also in the little things – Nina thinking everyone is talking about her (they are); the lights being switched off when she needs to rehearse;  the piano accompanist refusing to stay late; the need to please the director – when he asks her about her sexual experience and tells her to masturbate and she wakes up and does it in her bed only to find Mom in the chair beside her … Now that’s horrifying! The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both  Nina’s fragile mind is devastated by the pressure to perform with feeling rather than mere technical skill and first she thinks she sees herself everywhere in the form of a double – behind her own reflection, walking towards her in the subway – and her mind becomes fragmented in her own image. Then she sees … Lily. Lily the Black Swan. Lily who smokes, drinks, takes drugs and then goes down on her. Or does she?  The lines between dream and reality are blurred. Portman is great as the ingenue who needs to please and we are reminded of The Red Shoes, that classic balletomane’s film, and there are echoes of that madness and drive for perfection everywhere. Hershey, Kunis and Ryder are no less good in their supporting roles, buffeting the central thematic, the narrative’s corps de ballet. This is about obsession and we follow Nina right over the other side and into out and out madness and disbelief.  The climax brings everything together in the most devastating, logical fashion. Performance is all.  Mad, crazed and melodramatic, this is absolutely on the money when it comes to female (and mother-daughter) rivalry and is literally a danse macabre.  Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin.

Hereditary (2018)

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All I do is worry and slave and defend you, and all I get back is that fucking face on your face! Miniaturist artist Annie Graham (Toni Collette) lives with her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne), their teenage son Peter (Alex Wolff), and their strange looking 13-year-old daughter Charlie (Charlie Shapiro). At the funeral of her mother, Ellen, Annie’s eulogy explains their fraught relationship. When Steve is informed that the grave has been desecrated, he keeps it secret, while Annie thinks she sees Ellen in her workshop. At a bereavement support group she reveals that, growing up, the rest of her family including Ellen suffered from mental illness. Daughter Charlie, who likes decapitating birds, sees Ellen, to whom she was especially close, several times.  Ellen’s miniatures reveal that Ellen wanted to breastfeed the girl herself.  Following a terrible accident and another family death Ellen’s difficult relationship with Peter is revealed. She is approached by support group member Joan (Ann Dowd) who persuades her to join her in trying to contact lost loved ones. When Annie attempts to do so at the house she unleashes powerful forces which she knows signify a malign connection only she can stop but her husband just thinks she’s mentally ill …  Ari Aster’s debut feature as writer/director has given Toni Collette a return to the genre that made her world famous nineteen years ago in The Sixth Sense. That was another film about failing families and strange relations and her art works have a prophetic and odd quality which pervades the film itself using the family home as a kind of dollhouse where female power is entrapped.  (Feel free to add your own theatrical metaphor).  Collette doesn’t have all the operatic colours in her performance one is led to expect (although her weird trousers assist in her levitating) considering the importance attached to Greek mythology. At its heart this is about the mother from hell, trying to protect her family from terrible self-knowledge. It could have gone in another more troubling direction. Things are left unsaid, and that’s a good confident script, but it also means certain elements are simply not clarified:  is Steve a psychiatrist? Why is Charlie’s disfigurement not mentioned?  The trail towards the mystery’s solution is cleverly laid even if it’s a particularly slow burn. This is a film which has a split identity:  on the one hand it’s a maternal melo or psychodrama, crossing generations;  on the other it’s a horror homage owing a very large debt to Rosemary’s Baby in particular and therein lieth a problem for this viewer at least. When I finally figured out the plot hook – which actually made me laugh but also made me remember to always trust my prejudices – once the quiet stuff ended about 90 minutes in, I took umbrage at the slight at Roman Polanski which is tasteless if oblique, considering the weight one attaches to certain rumours spread about him in the wake of his wife’s murder. Meta? Yes. Clever? Not especially. But the admonition to Get Out obviously calls up another satirical family horror. This one doesn’t have that film’s sociopolitical critique but it does remind us that true horror resides right there in your family if you look hard enough. Right inside the dollhouse.

The Tin Drum (1979)

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There once was a drummer. His name was Oskar. He lost his poor mama, who had eat to much fish. There was once a credulous people… who believed in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really… the gas man! There was once a toy merchant. His name was Sigismund Markus… and he sold tin drums lacquered red and white. There was once a drummer. His name was Oskar. There was once a toy merchant… whose name was Markus… and he took all the toys in the world away with him. Oskar Matzerath (David Bennent) is a very unusual boy born in Danzig in 1924, after the city has been separated from Germany following WW1. Refusing to leave the womb until promised a tin drum by his mother, Agnes (Angela Winkler), Oskar is reluctant to enter a world he sees as filled with hypocrisy and injustice, and vows on his third birthday to never grow up as he watches his mother take her cousin Jan for a lover and she becomes pregnant – but by who? Miraculously Oskar gets his wish when he throws himself down a staircase.  His talent for breaking glass when he screams garners him attention. As the Nazis rise to power in Danzig, Oskar wills himself to remain a child, beating his tin drum incessantly and screaming in protest at the chaos surrounding him as his mother dies, his father takes a new wife who has a baby Oskar is convinced he has fathered and Hitler takes over while Oskar decides to join a travelling circus and entertain the Nazi troops in Paris … Günter Grass’ stunning 1959 novel was adapted by Volker Schlöndorff (and Jean-Claude Carriére and Frank Seitz Jr.) and he became the first German director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes with this transgressive, arresting and surreal impression of Nazism and the breakup of Europe. It’s mesmerising, brilliantly conceived and performed – Bennent is one of a kind – and once seen can never be forgotten. It is the blackest of comedies about the darkness in Germany and the way in which Polish people handled the transition to Nazism. The coda in real life – that Grass was found to have been in the Waffen-SS as a teenager after a lifetime of denial –  somehow just gives this greater heft. Amazing.

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.